Review: Roan Kikunoi (Kyoto, Japan)

118 Saitocho Kiyamachidori 40-jo Sagaru
Shimogyu-ku, Kyoto 600-8012
Kyoto Prefecture
Japan
+81 75 361 5580
http://kikunoi.jp/english/store/roan/

A gorgeous kaiseki dining experience marked my final night in Kyoto, Japan’s cultural and historical capital. Kaiseki dining is essentially a traditional multi-course dinner comprising of a colourful array of dishes showcasing the chef’s skillset as well as the season’s freshest ingredients. These little dishes are artistically arranged in little portions and presented to the guest during the course of the meal – yup, meet the original degustation.

Kikunoi is probably the most famous and lauded kaiseki restaurant in Japan. It also happens to be one of Tetsuya Wakuda’s favourite restaurants so the man gave Kikunoi two thumbs up, then it must be decent. Unfortunately, I was unable to score a booking at Kikunoi most likely thanks to its three Michelin star status so I tried my luck at its little sister restaurant Roan Kikunoi instead.

When looking to dine at Michelin-starred restaurants in Japan, one knows that lunches are the way to go if you’re looking for the same top-notch food at lower prices. Unfortunately, Roan Kikunoi couldn’t squeeze me in for lunch but thankfully they had a spare seat for me at the bar for dinner.

Still, I’d definitely encourage you to try for lunch – lunches here are a steal from ¥4000 (AUD$43), whereas dinners start at ¥10000 (AUD$109). In this instance, I went for the ¥10000 dinner.

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Roan Kikunoi’s counter dining approach lends to a more casual atmosphere than its big sister. Sure, the restaurant is still refined enough for your typical Gold Coast bogan to look awkwardly out of place in but it was definitely less formal than Fujiya 1935. Plus, sitting at the counter meant that you get a more interactive (and hence, more fun) experience.

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Things were already off to a fantastic start when I was quickly seated and presented with a personalised menu. Okay, I lie. It wasn’t personalised per se – it was essentially just the set menu they gave to everyone who ordered the ¥10000 dinner. Still, it was a lovely touch – it’s amazing just how much better a dining experience can be when only the littlest time is invested in these sorts of things.

Sake; yuzu.
Sake; yuzu.

The first cab off the rank was a hollowed out fresh yuzu (Japanese citrus) filled with yuzu tofu topped with yuzu miso. The yuzu tofu had a very faint hint of citrus notes but was the perfect catalyst for soaking up the strong nutty and citrusy flavours of the miso on top. A lovely yuzu-infused sake also accompanied the starter.

Series of appetisers: arrowhead root chips, dried mullet roe, duck liver paté with white poppy seeds, maple leaf-shaped squid coated with egg yolk and sea urchin, anglerfish liver, Shimej mushroom, pine needle-shaped tea noodles, sake-glazed gingko nuts.
Series of appetisers: arrowhead root chips, dried mullet roe, duck liver paté with white poppy seeds, maple leaf-shaped squid coated with egg yolk and sea urchin, anglerfish liver, Shimej mushroom, pine needle-shaped tea noodles, sake-glazed gingko nuts.

I was then presented with a small tray of the season’s autumn and among them, an assortment of little nibbles to get my appetite going. I loved how the whole thing was presented in a nonchalant manner, yet I’m sure each little element would have taken a lot of time and skill to prepare – I mean, hello, pine needle-shaped tea noodles?!

Red sea bream, Spanish mackerel with ponzu jelly, chrysanthemum petals, wasabi.
Red sea bream, Spanish mackerel with ponzu jelly, chrysanthemum petals, wasabi.

Next, I had the sashimi course. Moments beforehand, the chef came over to show me the still-alive fish he was going to cut up and present to me. Talk about super fresh, hey. Each bit of fresh fish was covered by a thin layer of ponzu jelly for a bit of zest with fresh wasabi on hand for a kick. There was also a dab of chrysanthemum petals but to be honest, the flowers didn’t do anything for me.

Pike conger soup, matsutake mushroom, mitsuba herb.
Pike conger soup, matsutake mushroom, mitsuba herb.

My first warm dish of the night was a fragrant pike conger soup that came in a neat clay teapot. The soup was insanely herby with few Japanese pine mushrooms thrown in for a bit of woody sweetness; this soup was perfect for those cold Kyoto autumn nights.

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I was then presented with a little cup covered with a cute wooden lid. What was inside?

Yuzu and wasabi sorbet.
Yuzu and wasabi sorbet.

Oh, nice. More yuzu. More wasabi. I say it in a good way though – this sorbet not only tied the last few courses together neatly, it was also a refreshing palate cleanser. I loved the combination of icy texture and strong citrus flavours tainted by the slightest hint of heat.

Ayu with roe, shiitake mushroom.
Ayu with roe, shiitake mushroom.

The ayu seems to be the fish of the season here for it was the second time I’d seen it served at a Michelin-starred restaurant. The duo of fish was char-grilled along with a piece of shiitake mushroom and then presented on top of some reeds.

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I’m not sure why they decided to chop the fish heads off, especially since the Japanese lady next to me had her fish served with their heads intact. Perhaps they incorrectly assumed this gaijin couldn’t hack seeing fish heads. Nevertheless, the fishes’ intestines were still intact, giving them that really sharp bitter kick I’ve come to dislike. Not even the water pepper vinegar that accompanied this dish could get rid of the bitterness. Yeah nah, sorry, ayu isn’t for me.

Rice with matsutake mushrooms.
Rice with matsutake mushrooms.

The final savoury course was the mushroom rice cooked in a claypot. This chef had seen me take photos of all the food with my iPhone so he decided to be a good sport by holding up the rice pot. Naw.

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I was served half the rice, which was served with some Chinese cabbage soup and a trio of Japanese pickles (eggplant, daikon and seaweed). As simple as this dish may sound, it was probably my favourite. It may not have looked like a lot of rice but it did the job in making me full and I just loved how flavoursome the mushrooms were. Washed down with some tasty miso soup and the rest of my glass of white wine, the rice made me a happy camper.

Lemon ice cream, pear compote.
Lemon ice cream, pear compote.

Dessert was a simple yet perfect affair consisting of lemon ice cream and pear compote. Much like the yuzu and wasabi palate cleanser, this sorbet was equally refreshing and tasty – the perfect way to end a well-executed dinner.

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Where did the other half of my rice go? It was made into two pieces of onigiri and placed in a brown doggy bag…

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… for me to enjoy the next morning for breakfast.

Roan Kikunoi, you’re very clever. Kudos to you. Not only did you have me buzzing as soon as I left your warm and friendly establishment, you also had me thinking about you the very next morning as I hopped on the train to Nagoya.

I eat too much.

3 Comments

  1. Foodvixen
    February 5, 2015

    Love, love, love the onigiri leftovers! Such a great idea. Shame you couldn’t get into Kikunoi, it’s on my long list of places to go to one day 😉

    Reply
  2. Valerie
    October 6, 2015

    Hi! Should I book a reservation here? I’m planning to eat here around November. Thanks!

    Reply
    1. libishski
      October 18, 2015

      Hi Valerie,

      If you want a fantastic kaiseki dining experience, this is the place to go! I would recommend you get your hotel concierge or Japanese-speaking friend to book for you though. Good luck, hope you manage to get a booking!

      Reply

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